Monday, February 25, 2008

How Can I Race You to Tunis When You're Already There?

Let me just say that my comments on the last Two Sides gaming session (a special extended edition) will take two posts to complete. There's just too much to say in one post. This post will cover the introduction and session report. Detailed thoughts will come in the following post.

Mike and I sat down on Saturday to finally get OCS on the table.

Our initial choice was the Race for Tunis scenario from Tunisia. Reasoning: it's a single-map scenario (and, in effect, it was more like the middle 1/3 of the map) and starts with low counter density and a relatively steady stream of replacements. Also, we both own the game so we could examine the situation beforehand. We'd also get a chance to get into the rhythm of the system before we were confronted with huge stacks of counters. And we'd need that rolling intro because this is a big system.

I've blogged before about learning OCS, and I've played it once before in a brief session about two years ago. That was a very small scenario from DAK2.

So, what is OCS?

The acronym stands for Operational Combat Series, and is published by The Gamers/MMP. The series is well over a dozen years old (Tunisia was the third game in the series, and it was published in 1995) and the series rules are up to version 4.0. The differentiating feature of OCS versus most other operational WWII games is that you physically move supply counters around the map, and spend it for fuel, combat, etc.

The effect of this is to create the pauses in action that happened in real life but never seem to occur on the wargaming table. Armies simply can't continuously fight unless they've got the ammo and fuel to do so. OCS games create these pauses forcing you to develop an actual supply line and the infrastructure required to move those supplies to where they're needed. After a major offensive loads of supply is used up, and it will likely take a while to store up the supply necessary to do it again. So, in larger games, you can end up with literally months of the troops staring at each other across the front while the quartermasters build up the supply dumps.

Most games in the series are scaled at 5 miles to the hex, and counters range from battalions up through large divisions. (And, while I said WWII, there's a published game in the series on the Korean War, and there's been some talk about going back to the Spanish Civil War and possibly WWI.) Turns cover half a week each. Turn structure is generally Igo-Ugo, but there's a reaction phase right before combat where the non-active player can release reserves and/or use aircraft to disrupt what the active player is trying to accomplish.

Tunisia, in particular, covers the battles that ejected the Axis forces from North Africa in late 1942 through May of 1943. The map depicts the Algerian and Tunisian coast from Phillipeville (I believe now called Skikda) east around the coast past Tunis to Gabes and the Mareth line around 140 miles or so west of Tripoli. (The middle of this google map is the area covered. The bottom right of the map is the largish island just east of Gabes.)

Racing to Tunis

We started off by choosing sides – Mike ended up with the Axis, and I took the Allies. The point of this scenario is for the Allies to advance east and take a majority of five cities. (Bizerte, Mateur, Tunis, Medjez el Bab, and Djedeida. Mike will be posting pictures, I believe. If not, I'll modify this post with an image showing the situation.) The allies start in mid-November and have until the end of December to accomplish this. (14 turns, IIRC.)

The forces are rather dispersed at game start, and the terrain is very limiting. There is a range of mountains just off the coast, and two east-west primary roads south of that. There's also a coast road that isn't quite as good. These three roads lead into passes that must be crossed to reach the Allied objectives. Mike's first decision in this scenario was where to defend, and mine was to get my forces and supply toward the front while watching where he puts his forces. I have multiple avenues of attack; I just have to choose where to focus. All supply must be shipped or airlifted to the map, limiting me to around 4 to 4.5 supply points (SP) per turn. (To give an idea of supply costs: Generally, a motorized or mechanized unit takes ¼ SP to move - foot units walk for free - and all units spend ¼ SP per combat. Artillery barrages usually cost between ½ and 1 SP as well.)

We were both taking this as a learning game (and in fact had agreed to play two turns then decide if we wanted to restart should we have critically botched something) so there wasn't the urge to optimize moves there may have been otherwise. That said, we certainly were doing what we could to come out victorious.

The first couple turns saw us getting used to the game flow and figuring out the best ways to move our guys around the map. I determined I wanted to have most of my reinforcements arrive on map, saving my shipping/airlift capacity to deliver supplies to the ports. One side effect of this decision was some troops simply took longer to get to the front than I would have preferred. The other side effect was that I ended up with a northern focus to my supplies and a southern focus to my reinforcements. This meant I had to take and keep the two north-south roads over the mountains in order to supply the troops south of the mountains.

Coincidentally, Mike had determined that the passes just east of the easternmost of those two roads (from Djebel Abiod to Bedja – I'll call it the DAB road) would be his initial defensive line.

By the end of turn 4 (two weeks after the start of the scenario) I'd managed to get things mostly in place for an offensive. About this time I realized the timing of the scenario. November is primarily when the Allies get all their reinforcements. December sees the Axis bringing in significantly more forces AND in increase in their shipping capabilities. December also brings bad weather – each turn has a slightly better than ½ chance of Mud. This means no flying, and essentially a lost turn. Shipping happens, reinforcements arrive, but nobody can really move much. (nor can they spend supplies.) I felt like I was under the gun to push the action.

I get the initiative on this turn and push Mike back in the north. I go first again in the next turn and push Mike back in the south. I've also got a mechanized force stationed at a crossroads further south (Le Kef) that is threatening to run around Mike's southeast flank towards Tunis. This pulls my attention towards the south, and I don't really see what Mike's bringing in as reinforcements from Bizerte in the north. It turns out to be the 10th Panzer Division. And, of course, I managed to leave a weak spot at the north end of my line. On Mike's half of turn 5, he breaks through there with a much stronger force than I believed he had and suddenly he's threatening to take Tabarka; my easternmost port and trace supply source for the northern portion of my forces.

The 6th turn (December 1) was a textbook example of one of the things that makes the OCS system shine in practice: The Double Turn. Mike won the initiative and went first. This meant he had two consecutive turns against me while I can't clean up disorganized troops (or do any other regrouping) until the end of my coming turn. As a result, I lost Tabarka (along with some transport points), and had to really scramble to reset my supply lines along the DAB road on my half of the turn. The next turn saw our only mud turn of the night – so nothing really happened other than he decided he wasn't going to try to hold Tabarka, but was able to ship a speed bump over there to slow me down when retaking it.

When the weather improved, I was really feeling the time crunch as I hadn't advanced past the DAB road, and wasn't close to any of the five objectives. I retook Tabarka here, but Mike's counter attack in the south was fierce, and my prospects were really looking bleak.

For the final turn we played, Mike got another double turn and really sealed the deal by taking most of the DAB road thus shutting down any coordination between my advanced forces. That, realistically, meant I had no chance to win. Particularly with (given average weather) only two or three more turns of activity to get there. I'd need to screen off Tabarka from his forces and restructure my advance to the south. Not and easy thing to do with plenty of time and supplies, let alone restrictions on each.

At this point, we called it. We had played up through the December 12 turn (9 turns in all, one of them mud) in under 8 hours of playing time, including setup. The first two turns took us close to three hours on their own as we were floundering around figuring out how things worked. Then it started to click and we spent most of our thinking time on how to do what we wanted, not how to play the game. We seemed to have averaged about 45 minutes per turn once we got into the flow. Experience with the system and the game will probably bring that down a bit, at least for Tunisia. Other games in the series have some serious counter density (like Case Blue, for example) so I can imagine quite long turns in those games when the offensives kick in. The rules actually provide for “build-up” turns where nobody's attacking anyone so you can do things simultaneously until someone decides turn order is important again.

As I said, I'm going to post more detailed feelings about OCS in general within a couple days, but suffice it to say this may have been the most rewarding single day of hex-n-counter wargaming I've ever experienced. Time completely flew by as we were totally engrossed in what was happening. I would have been court-martialed, ridiculed, and fired as the Allied commander, but the nice thing about doing this as a game instead of real life is I get to try again some time and nobody gets hurt.

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